MLive reports that Muskegon Heights Public Schools has chosen Mosaica Education Inc., a charter public school operator, to manage four of its schools. The move came at the recommendation of the district’s emergency manager, Donald Weatherspoon.

The evidence from Mosaica’s other Michigan charter schools is cause for optimism that the public charter school operator can help improve the Muskegon district’s financial footing, and can hopefully improve student academic achievement. Currently, the district has a $12 million overspending problem and its students’ scores on state tests are among the lowest in Michigan.

Mosaica already operates six public charter schools in Michigan, and for the 2011 school year all six spent less per student ($9,280) than the statewide average ($13,400), and spent far less than Muskegon Heights ($15,100).

The outsized cost in Muskegon Heights may be due in part to past teacher contracts that, among other things, ensured teachers were guaranteed a 4-5 percent pay bump every year, in addition to across-the-board salary increases.

When it comes to student test results, Mosaica appears to have mixed results. Recent news accounts have compared the percentage of students scoring proficient or better on the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) at Mosaica schools to other schools across the state. One reporter dryly noted that “While not exactly stellar, student test scores at other Mosaica charter schools in Michigan surpass that of Muskegon Heights schools.”

This does appear to be the case. When compared to other school districts within the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, Mosaica-managed public charter schools tend to report a lower-than average percentage of students scoring proficient or better on MEAP tests.

However, part of the reason for the lower scores may be that the vast majority of those students come from low-income families. Research has consistently shown that students from low-income households tend to score lower on standardized tests and have less access to educational opportunities outside of school than students from higher income families.

Consider Richfield Public School Academy and Grand Blanc Academy, located in the Flint area and operated by Mosaica. Both reported that, for all grades and all subjects, an average of a little more than 25 percent of their students scored proficient or better on the 2011 MEAP test. This score puts them slightly ahead of the Flint Community Schools (22 percent), slightly behind the Genesee School District (28.3 percent), and far behind Grand Blanc Community Schools (60.2 percent).

Students at the Richfield and Grand Blanc academies, however, are far more likely to come from lower income backgrounds. More than 91 percent of Richfield students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, while Grand Blanc Academy is one of just 14 school districts in the state where all students are from low-income backgrounds.

In comparison, 82 percent of students from Flint Community Schools, 69 percent of students from the Genesee School District, and just 28 percent of students from Grand Blanc Community Schools come from low-income backgrounds.

Considering its higher share of students from low-income households, it may very well be the case that Mosaica schools are taking on students who are more economically and educationally disadvantaged than the students attending nearby conventional districts that reported higher test scores.

Hopefully Mosaica can help Muskegon Heights lessen its financial woes and improve student academic performance. Mosaica’s operating costs are dramatically lower than that of the Muskegon Heights district, and there are some bright spots when comparing the Mosaica student performance and population to other Muskegon County schools.

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Audrey Spalding is an education policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.